“You certainly seem to be enjoying your retirement.” I often hear these words from former colleagues, many retired themselves, and heard them again the other day from my longtime gynecologist. Then there was the morning  I read it on the Internet, my author credit for a magazine article published last year: “As reported by retired New York Times writer Diane Nottle.” Sometimes I correct people, sometimes I just smile faintly: do they really think I’m old enough and/or rich enough to be retired?

Let me be clear: I didn’t retire; I wasn’t laid off. I just left. The difference between leaving and retiring is a pension that lands in your account every month. And thus I entered the gap years.

In the Great Newspaper Meltdown of ’08, The Times, where I had been an editor for 20 years, was reducing its newsroom staff by 100 and had a buyout offer on the table. I wasn’t planning to take it, but then one of the managing editors called me into his office to give me a friendly heads-up:  in the shuffle that would follow the buyouts and any possible layoffs, some assigning editors would be returning to the copy desk, and I was likely to be one of them.  What he probably meant to say was: “We’ll need people with specialized skills to fill some holes, and you have those skills.” (Never mind that those skills had atrophied considerably after more than a decade in a different role.) What I heard was: “We think you’re only good enough do the same job you did the first day you walked in the door.” In any case, it would have been a demotion, and yet, as a savvy friend pointed out, with my experience I would be expected to fill in at the higher level whenever needed, without extra compensation or any likelihood of being promoted back up there. So I left.

I already envied my three brothers and the friend I met on the first day of sixth grade, all educators who had retired with full benefits after 30 years’ service, around age 52. At 53, with 20 years at The Times, neither was I old enough nor had I worked there long enough to qualify for even a partial early pension, only the buyout payment, 15 months’ salary. But that was 15 months more than I’d had the last time I left a job without another one waiting. Besides, I remembered being asked when I was about to start my job, “Where do you go from The New York Times?” and answering, “Anywhere  you want.” I was confident that was still true.

One of the first places I went was Eastern Europe, on a three-month rail odyssey. A funny thing happened when I wasn’t paying attention: the American economy crashed. I heard the news upon checking  into a hotel in Graz, Austria, after two media-free weeks in Croatia and Italy. By the time I reached Budapest a week later, I was starting to think, “Maybe this isn’t the best time in history for a woman my age to be unemployed.” But most of the buyout money was still there, not to mention a 401(K) that Vanguard identified as  “significant assets,” so I did the only sensible thing: invested in beaded evening bags.

Three years later, the view is slightly different. The IRS got the last of the buyout money some time ago, despite 46 percent withholding; the “significant assets” aren’t what they used to be. The pensions don’t kick in for three more years, Social Security for five, Medicare for eight – assuming any of those still exist by then. And it’s amazing how many people think I can work for free.

On  the job market, experience seems undesirable if it makes you look expensive, and especially if your resume dates back to 1975. In “The Company Men,” last year’s film about laid-off executives, Chris Cooper’s character is advised to delete anything before 1990 from his resume and to dye his hair – “You look like hell.” Frankly, I’m proud of everything on my resume, dates and all,  and it’s not so many years since I stopped coloring my hair precisely because I had come to admire the lush silver manes I was seeing on so many attractive women of a certain age, namely mine. But my contemporaries and I are living in a world where high-level positions — the ones we were told we might attain someday, if we were  patient and worked very hard — have turned into entry-level jobs for 27-year-olds, who expect their careers to be leaps from peak to peak rather than long uphill climbs.

A new generation has taken over; we are to get out of the way, as fast and graciously and we possibly can. (And really, who wants to work for the brash, arrogant, deeply insecure people we used to be?) But then there’s the matter of the income gap. In the book “Groping Toward Whatever, or, How I Learned to Retire (Sort Of),” Susan Trausch catches up with old friends from The Boston Globe who, like her, took a buyout. The money didn’t last as long as they’d expected, but they’re adapting – some by training in new fields, for the money — and surviving. As we all reinvent ourselves, we are still working, not to keep busy  but, like everyone else, to earn a living.

Yes, I probably should have saved more for my over-50 years, but who saw this recession coming, or the toll it would take on people who thought their jobs were secure until they were at least 65? (In all the government’s halfhearted attempts at economic stimulus, no one seems to have thought of lifting the 10 percent penalty for those forced to dip into their 401(K)’s prematurely.) But then I think of friends who died at 48, or 41 — I’m attending her memorial today — or 37,  and wonder if they wish they’d saved more for retirement. 

Like Edith Piaf, I think, “Non, je ne regrette rien,” least of all these last three years. In that time I have taught in Poland and China; traveled to almost a dozen other countries; published articles about my city in one halfway around the world that I’ve never seen; written hundreds of thousands of words for book projects I couldn’t have conceived back in the newsroom. I have dinner with a friend who did not take the last buyout and was promptly demoted, just as I would have been; now, as she considers applying for the current buyout offer, I give her the same advice I did then: “Jump!” Have I cut back? Do I worry about  where I’ll be a year from now, and how I’ll pay the bills and keep the Manhattan apartment where I’ve been so happy? Of course. But that’s no reason to stop living now.

A while back, in an indulgence not unlike those Hungarian evening bags, I ordered a pair of my favorite French walking shoes. Expensive? Oh, yes. But sturdy and good-looking, too. These shoes will wear for years, and I with them.

2 thoughts on “The gap years

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